800 buses, 5 ships, 1 burst pipe: How Jacksonville pulled off a Super Bowl

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Cruise ships.

That’s what still sticks out about the lone appearance of a Super Bowl in Jacksonville -- not that it was New England’s third title in four seasons (the Patriots beat the Eagles, 24-21), Eagles receiver Terrell Owens’ remarkable performance on a broken ankle, Paul McCartney’s electric halftime performance or quarterback Donovan McNabb’s alleged and disputed upchuck on the field in the fourth quarter.

Cruise ships.

Five of them docked at various points along the St. Johns River. The city didn’t have the NFL’s required number of premium hotel rooms, so additional accommodations were floated in.

The decision was ridiculed from the moment the NFL announced in 2000 that the city would host Super Bowl XXXIX on Feb. 6, 2005. It was a huge gamble for the league to put the sport’s ultimate event in one of the league’s smallest markets.

Fifteen years later, those who helped plan it and pull it off don't dispute that there were issues. But they also don’t dispute this, either: It worked.

“It was definitely an underdog story,” said Michael Kelly, the former head of the Jacksonville Super Bowl host committee and now the vice president of athletics at the University of South Florida. “It was something we knew would be unique and challenging, particularly and mainly because of the use of the cruise ships and that sort of thing.

“I think everybody was kind of captivated by it. It was the whole Super Bowl-on-the-river concept. It was unique and I think everyone admired the creative solutions to overcoming the mere fact that there’s not enough hotel rooms to make the bid work. In true fashion, the Jacksonville leaders found a way.”

Logistical nightmare

Jacksonville getting the Super Bowl was almost as much an upset as the city being awarded an expansion franchise in 1993. The city can thank then-owner Wayne Weaver, who had served on various NFL committees and had become one of the league’s most well-liked owners. It was his idea to pitch the city to the league and it was also his idea for the cruise ships.

Weaver and city leaders spent more than two years planning. More than a year before the league was supposed to vote, Jim Steeg, then the league’s senior vice president for special events, remembers stepping into a room at the owners meetings in Atlanta and seeing a giant map of the city laid out with small wooden ships marking the potential locations of the cruise ships.

Renting the ships cost $11.7 million and the city’s port commission, per the Associated Press, paid about $1.25 million to fix docks.

And after Jacksonville earned the bid came the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which brought increased security. People weren’t just able to walk onto their ship and head to their rooms. They had to be screened each time they boarded.

In addition, only one of the cruise ships was able to fit under the city’s bridges and make it all the way downtown; others had to be docked in other areas of the river, farther away. Roughly 800 buses were put into service to ferry people to events downtown.

Steeg said there were no five-alarm issues reported during the week -- other than when a computer system malfunctioned on one of the ships and several people from the NFL were unable to check into their rooms for roughly eight hours.

On game day, a pipe burst inside Alltel Stadium (now called TIAA Bank Field) and officials had to scramble to keep the water from spreading, fix the leak and clean the mess. Steeg, who oversaw the planning of 26 Super Bowls -- said that didn’t give the city a black eye in the NFL’s mind.

“Because it happens everywhere,” said Steeg, now a consultant. “We can write books on things that went wrong at every single Super Bowl, whether it’s hotel issues, transportation issues, whatever it is. Airplanes being late. Run down the list, right?

“Everybody got in, had a good time and got out. If you’re not an Eagles fan, you had a great time.”

The weather that week wasn’t great -- rainy, gray and temperatures in the 50s -- but it cleared up the day before the game and the weekend was warmer and sunny. Kelly remembers a sense of pride at seeing huge crowds downtown during the day and the fireworks on Saturday night from his office high up in a city office building.

“No matter how much logistical challenges there were, I really felt that the city really came together well,” said Kelly, who also helped coordinate Super Bowls in Tampa and Miami and was the chief operating officer of the College Football Playoff from 2012-18. “Of all the games I’ve gone to and worked with, I just felt the community did maybe the best job with their volunteers system and the fact that everyone took such pride in it and came together and made it happen.”

Will it ever happen again?

In his news conference during Super Bowl week, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said he believed the game would “be back here at some point.”

That doesn’t look like it will happen for a long, long time. Current Jaguars owner Shad Khan made that clear at a news conference in 2016.

“Absolutely not,” Khan said. “What it takes to get a Super Bowl, I think, is setting Jacksonville up for failure. I think with time and money, energy is much better served on something else. ... I’d love to see Florida get Super Bowls, but I think Tampa and Miami are much better suited for that. The requirements now for hotel rooms and some of the other infrastructure amenities we don’t have here, so let’s not kid ourselves.”

"Everybody got in, had a good time and got out. If you're not an Eagles fan, you had a great time."
Jim Steeg, former NFL senior vice president for special events

The NFL requires Super Bowl cities to have roughly 20,000 full-service hotel rooms and have venues available for concerts, parties and other events. There is a long list of other requirements, too -- the city’s airport and transportation systems must be able to handle the massive influx of media, sponsors, players, executives and fans who begin arriving a week or more before the game.

There are more hotels now and Jacksonville has grown by more than 100,000 residents in the past 15 years -- the metro area now has roughly 1.5 million residents -- but the Super Bowl has grown, too, with more events on a bigger scale.

The city was able to accommodate events in 2005 by utilizing both sides of the St. Johns River in the downtown area and blocking off a large swath of city streets (and spending roughly $2 million to spruce up those areas). There still aren't enough bars and restaurants and entertainment venues downtown, Jaguars president Mark Lamping said.

However, a proposed $700 million development of an entertainment, housing, office and retail center around the stadium -- which city leaders and the Jaguars are contemplating -- could change the downtown dynamics. So would significant renovations to TIAA Bank Field, which also is on the team's radar.

“If we were looking for the stars to align for Jacksonville, there is that possibility, but what would have to happen is these downtown development initiatives will have to get completed,” Lamping said. “We’ll fulfill our responsibilities as it relates to that, but it’s going to take more than just us. And I think there will need to be sort of a long-term solution for what does the football stadium in Jacksonville look like going into the future?

“Miami’s an unbelievable market in terms of tourism and the desirability of people wanting to visit there and the weather. It is a little spread out, but it has a lot of things going for it. If it wasn’t for those major renovations that have happened at Hard Rock Stadium over the course of the past three or so years, the Super Bowl wouldn't be there. You have to have a great market, but you also have to have a stadium that is worthy of hosting the biggest sporting event in the world.”

But if the city somehow took care of all of those issues, would the league be amenable to returning to the First Coast?

“I think so,” Steeg said.